Archive for February, 2017
TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Matthew 17:5.
Listening is a lost art. These days we download more information than we can possibly hope to absorb; we scroll down the Facebook wall absorbing tidbits from the personal lives of people we might not even know; and we get our news digested, dumbed down and spun to our liking. To be informed is to know what is “trending,” to have read the latest tweet, to have commented on the most recent post. “Old media” such as newspapers, hardcopy magazines and scholarly journals are dying. We haven’t the time to read lengthy, nuanced articles that leave us with more questions than answers. We haven’t the patience for a book that takes days to read and does not give us “closure.” Why make a trip to the library when all the information you need is obtainable from Google? Of course, ferreting truthful and accurate information out of that forest of conspiracy nuttiness, half truths and misinformation found on the internet regarding any given topic is just as inconvenient as struggling with an ungainly newspaper or trekking to the library. Discernment, like listening, is hard work. It requires time, patience and persistence. In our current culture, what cannot be reduced to an “elevator speech,” a tweet or a sound bite is not worth learning. Only that which is simple, free of nuance and easily expressed deserves a hearing.
Not surprisingly, then, we seem to have reached the point where truth no longer matters. We have lost the capacity to be shocked when the president of the United States rails about terrorist attacks in Sweden that never happened; massive voter fraud for which there is not a scrap of evidence and skyrocketing crime when the crime rate is actually lower than at any time since the early 1970s. “Fake news” can only exist in a culture so pitifully superficial and woefully ignorant that it seldom looks further than the latest blizzard of tweets, posts and shares.
I am not an enemy of the internet or social media. Neither do I believe that they are the source of all our social, political and moral woes. The social media revolution has made this blog of mine possible. It would be hypocritical in the extreme for me, of all people, to damn it. I am truly grateful for the opportunity the internet has given me to be heard by a larger audience. Nevertheless, I still miss the days when you couldn’t publish a book or an article that anyone would read without convincing a reputable publisher you had something to say and were capable of expressing it. I miss the days when our free public libraries were the authoritative source of public information and the gatekeepers were knowledgeable reference librarians who steered you to reliable and authoritative literature. I sometimes long for the days when you had to be somebody before you got to be on television or radio. Call me an elitist, but I miss the days when all opinions were not equal; when only men and women who knew what they were talking about got an audience and the ignorant were left to mutter their nonsense into their drinks at some hole-in-the-wall bar.
Yes, of course there was plenty of ignorance when I was growing up and a good deal more bigotry and overt racism. There were plenty of stupid television programs and radio shows as well. There was no shortage of demagogues and fear mongers in my younger years. God knows there have been too many trees sacrificed to print poorly written books. But generally speaking, we had a way of figuring out what was good and what wasn’t. Fringe elements remained on the fringe. Over time, the books worth reading percolated to the top while the junk found its way to the bargain table or the recycling bin. That was due in no small part to literary critics whose knowledge, understanding and insight were publicly recognized. We used to understand the difference between professional journalists on the one hand, who painstakingly collected facts, interviewed sources and carefully wove their material into thorough, balanced and thought provoking articles and demagogues on the other, who spouted groundless conspiracy theories and advanced baseless assertions. Nobody forty years ago with any semblance of literacy would ever have thought about putting trash like Breitbart on the same level with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. But now that the internet has leveled the playing field, one has to fish through miles of cyber sewage to find genuine news, reliable information and truthful reporting. Truthful speech is simply one more voice struggling to be heard and frequently shouted down under the cacophony of “alternative facts.”
In the Transfiguration gospel, the Word of God reminds us that the truth still matters and identifies the voice to which we need to listen in order to hear it. We are commanded to listen to Jesus. That will require us to re-learn the art of listening and slow, careful reading. The Bible is not a post you skim and delete. It is one of those books, like Moby Dick, that you live with, read and read again. A good book is one you find it nearly impossible to explain. The most you can say about it is: “You have got to read this!” A book that can be summarized isn’t worth reading. How much more so the Bible! Don’t think you can find an abstract or a digest of Jesus. You cannot fit the Sermon on the Mount into a tweet or summarize it on a bumper sticker. If you are not confused and mystified by the Bible, you have not been listening to it!
There are many voices today clamoring for our attention. Some of those voices, like those of Moses and Elijah, even speak to us from out of the Bible. But none of these voices, not even the biblical ones, merit our immediate and primary attention. The first voice we are called to hear is that of Jesus. Learning to listen well to him will guide our reading of the Bible and sharpen our discernment enabling us to recognize and speak what is true, what is beautiful and what is good. Our language is only as powerful as our ability to listen and discern the truth. Here’s a poem by Kay Ryan about the fate of language in the absence of truth:
The Obsoletion of a Language
We knew it
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
Source: Poetry Magazine (May 2011), c. by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was born in in 1945 in California. She is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can find out more about Kay Ryan and sample more of her fine poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Exodus is the second of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) making up the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses.” It has long been understood that Moses was not the author of these works, at least not in the modern sense of that term. Most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These works were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist” or just “J,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source referred to simply as “E.” This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist or “D,” consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the “J” and “E” material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E.
That all sounds nice in theory. But our reading for Sunday illustrates the limitations of such literary analysis in many cases. Exodus 24 is filled with phrases and terminology that is foreign to all of the four known sources. This has led to a dispute over whether we are dealing with a possible fifth source or perhaps incorporation of such source material by J and E, the probable contributors for this section. Old Testament professor Brevard Childs wisely concludes that “the evidence is no longer such as to permit this detailed reconstruction” and that “the better part of wisdom consists in making clear those areas of general agreement.” Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 500. That being said, the one thing all scholars tend to agree upon is that verses 15-18 can be safely attributed to the “P” source.
By now you must be wondering why any of this crap matters. Usually, it doesn’t. Ordinarily, I would not waste time with such noetic perjinkerties, but I believe that here it makes sense to focus on verses 15-18 with the understanding that they come down to us ultimately from the Priestly (“P”) source. As Professor Gerhard Von Rad points out, “P depicts a course of history in which new manifestations, institutions, and regulations are revealed from age to age.” Von Rad, Gernard, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd, pub. Harper &Row Publishers, Inc.) p. 233. At this particular juncture in the Exodus narrative, Moses is being summoned to the top of Mt. Sanai to receive the “tables of stone, with the law and the commandments.” Vs. 12. He instructs Aaron and Hur to remain below with the people. Vs. 14. At the beginning of vs. 15 we are given the Priestly authors’ account of Moses’ direct encounter with God upon Sinai. God appears as a devouring fire in the midst of a dense cloud. While at this point Moses alone can approach God, Moses is to receive detailed instructions for construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in which it will be housed. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in the Tabernacle which will henceforth mediate God’s presence in the midst of Israel. All of this is spelled out in Exodus 25-31.
The Priestly history reveals that “new manifestations and institutions” governing worship and faithful living are not directionless. They have a goal, namely, the nearer presence of God. There is, one could say, an incarnational tropism expressed in the relentless approach of God toward his people. The end point is that day when “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest…” Jeremiah 31:33-34. Or, in terms of the New Testament, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them.” Revelation 21:3. This dogged progression of God toward oneness with his people manifested throughout the growth and development of Israelite religious institutions could not have been lost on Matthew whose purpose is to present Jesus as the end point of the law and the prophets. That will become increasingly evident in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration.
This psalm is familiar to all lovers of Handel’s Messiah. Formally, it is an “enthronement psalm” portraying the coronation of an Israelite/Judean King. As such, it reflects a ritual common throughout the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, where the king was designated “God’s son.” The coronation took place in the sanctuary where the newly crowned king received an oracle from the priest legitimating his rule. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 188. This ritual and its accompanying liturgy brings into sharp focus the danger of monarchy and the reason for Israel’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship. As the prophet Samuel pointed out when the people of Israel first began agitating for a king to rule over them, kingship would bring with it taxation, loss of tribal autonomy and oppressive military conscription. I Samuel 8:10-18. But the more significant threat was theological. It is the Lord “who is enthroned on Israel’s praises.” Anointing a king over Israel amounted to dethroning the Lord as king. I Samuel 8:7. Linkage between the liturgy of the Temple and the coronation of the king is symptomatic of a dangerous synergy. Before long, the worship of God would be swallowed up in adoration of the king. Very soon the institutions of worship and the observances of the covenant would become the religion of the nation state. Faith in Israel’s God would be reduced to sacred ideology legitimating injustice and oppression under the monarchy. This is precisely the evil which the 8th Century prophets rose to denounce.
Nevertheless, this and several other psalms containing coronation liturgies and prayers for the king have made their way into the Psalter. It is important to keep in mind that, however corrupt the institution of monarchy might actually have become in Israel and Judah, the role of the king was to serve as God’s minister for justice. The king is not above the law as the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates. II Samuel 11:1-12:25. Kings of Israel were anointed to “judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice,” “to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Psalm 72:2-4. The hope that such a king would someday arise remained alive even among prophets most critical of the monarchy, such as Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 23:1-6). It finally evolved into the fevered messianic expectation present throughout Palestine in Jesus’ day. This longing for a messianic liberator was naturally fed by resentment toward Roman domination. Thus, claiming the title “messiah” or “son of God” was a dangerous political assertion. It amounted to a frontal attack on the Roman Empire which maintained that “Caesar is Lord.”
Verse seven of the psalm is echoed first at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:17. The devil takes up the refrain throughout his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11. We hear these words once again in Sunday’s lesson on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Matthew 17:5. The allusion to this psalm is intended to inform us that Jesus is the messiah and, among other things, the rightful heir to the throne of David. But as we shall see in our reflections on the gospel lesson, there is far more to be said of Jesus than was ever intended for any Israelite king by the psalm.
The second letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was composed well into the 2ndCentury. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16). The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.
The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.
Sunday’s reading appears to reference the Transfiguration story recounted in the gospels. However, it is possible that the author is referring to a resurrection appearance of Jesus similar to that described in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:16-20. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears only briefly to the women at the tomb following his resurrection. He instructs them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet him at a particular mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:8-10. Mark has a similar sequence, but in his gospel the women do not see Jesus, but only an angelic messenger at the tomb. Rather than delivering to the rest of the disciples the instructions to return to Galilee, the women run away from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:5-8. In Matthew’s account, the women deliver the message from the risen Christ and the disciples travel to Galilee where they encounter him. Matthew 28:16. So the question is, which “holy mountain” is the author talking about? The Mountain of Transfiguration? Or the mountain in Galilee where the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ?
In either case, the point is that faith rests upon the handing down of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life giving ministry, obedient suffering, faithful death and glorious resurrection. These are not “cleverly devised myths,” but faithful testimony grounded in the witness of the apostles. Vs. 16. Jesus is the “prophetic word made more sure.” He is the “lamp shining in a dark place” by which we read the scriptures. No scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation. For disciples of Jesus, the scripture has one purpose: to illuminate their Master. It is a dreadful mistake, therefore, to read the scriptures as though they were a list of moral rules, a collection of wise sayings or interesting narratives apart from their testimony to Jesus who, for us, gives them their meaning.
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Vs. 1. The six days almost certainly harken back to the Exodus narrative in which the glory of the Lord in the midst of a cloud descended upon Mt. Sinai for that period of time. Exodus 24:16. Just as it was on the seventh day that Moses was called to enter into the cloud where the glory of the Lord resided, so Jesus takes his disciples “after six days” to the Mountain of Transfiguration where they enter with him into the cloud. The glory of the Lord which they behold, however, is Jesus himself whose face shines like the sun and whose garments become white as light. Vs. 2. Professor Stanley Hauerwas sees in these “six days” an allusion to the six days of creation after which God rested. Genesis 2:1-3. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 154. This could well be so. As I have noted before, it is not Matthew’s intent to fit Jesus into a single, ridged scriptural paradigm, but rather to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through myriad Hebrew Scriptural figures and traditions. Fellowship with Jesus is indeed the ultimate Sabbath rest and may well be what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:27-30 where he promises rest to all “who labor and are heavy laden.”
Jesus appears in the company of Moses and Elijah. The former is the mouthpiece through whom God delivered the covenant to Israel from Mt. Sinai. The latter is the mouth through which God persistently called Israel back to faithfulness under that covenant. Though ever in tension with one another, the law and the prophets are inseparable. The law (understood as “Torah”) is the concrete shape of Israel’s life of faithful obedience to her God. The prophets speak that same Torah freshly to each generation. In that sense, the prophets are “radicals,” ever calling Israel back to the roots of her faith. Matthew means to make it clear, however, that Jesus transcends both Moses and Elijah. Jesus both extends and fulfills their missions in himself. The voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Vs. 5. When the cloud recedes and the disciples raise their terrified faces once again, they find themselves in the presence of “Jesus only.” Vs. 8.
Once again, we hear the echo of Psalm 2 in the words, “This is my beloved Son.” Vs. 5. Though Matthew is obviously intimating that Jesus is, among other things, the messiah and heir to the throne of David, he is saying far more about Jesus than could ever be said of any Israelite king. For Matthew, the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures and their great figures can shed light on the person and work of Jesus, but none of them can contain him. Here on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the new wine of the kingdom bursts all of the old skins. Our attention is turned to ‘Jesus only.”
This text amplifies what the gospels all teach us repeatedly. Just when you think you know Jesus, you find out that you don’t. There is always more to Jesus than meets the eye and discipleship is as much about unlearning what we think we know about Jesus as it is learning new things about him. Sometimes I think that the church’s biggest problem is that we have ceased to be amazed by Jesus. The Christ we proclaim is too often the predictably nice, inoffensive, upper middle class, slightly left of center, socially responsible but ever white and ever polite protestant gentleman. Without the beard, bathrobe and sandals he would look just like us. As a friend remarked to me years ago, “Fritz Mondale in a Jesus suit.” Nothing against Fritz, but he and the rest of us just aren’t sufficiently interesting to get most people out of bed on a Sunday morning. That is why we need Jesus!
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.
I once did that very thing in my first congregation. It was in 1986 immediately following the United States’ bombing of Libya. I prayed for our nation and God’s guidance for its leaders; I prayed for the military personnel involved in the operation; then I prayed for Libyan soldiers and citizens killed or injured in the raid. It was, as you might expect, the last petition that drew the ire of certain members of my then congregation. They felt I was being disloyal to my country and disrespectful of American soldiers, particularly veterans. They expressed the view that it was my patriotic duty to support my country’s military, not undermine it (though I expressed no view pro or con with respect to the propriety of the bombing mission itself). “But what about Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies,” I asked. “Pray for them in the privacy of your own room if you must,” snapped one particularly agitated member. “But don’t betray my country in this church!” I was stunned at the time and totally unprepared for the hostile response I got to this prayer that seemed entirely in line with what Jesus commands.
Since that time, however, I have come to understand a basic truth about American Christianity-and the so-called “white evangelical” varieties in particular: Much of American Christianity is to a large extent liturgical window dressing for the religion of American nationalism. How else can you explain rejecting a very specific command of Jesus so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities? It seems as though a lot of what passes for Christianity these days is long on nationalism and short (short to the point of non-existent) on Jesus.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, love for enemies is not optional for disciples of Jesus. Love for the enemy is, in fact, the only expression of love guaranteed to be genuine. Such love, Bonhoeffer tells us, is the very definition of love. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd) p. 162.
“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ or we are not Christians at all. Am I asked how this love is to behave? Jesus gives the answer; bless, do good, and pray for your enemies without reserve and without respect of persons.” Ibid. p. 165.
It is important to delineate exactly what this love is as well as what it is not. Love is not uncritical devotion. It is not slavish submission to abuse. It is not “going along to get along.” Precisely because disciples of Jesus understand that they are objects of God’s undeserved love, because they understand that the enemy is no less precious in God’s sight, because they believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate every human life, disciples must confront their enemies with the truth about God and the truth about themselves. Love speaks truth to power; judgment to sin; and resistance to abuse. But the object of such truthful speech is never to overpower, defeat or shame the enemy. That would only deepen the canyon of animosity between us. Repentance, reconciliation and faith are the only legitimate objectives for speaking the hard words of reproof. The enemy (as far as we can ever know) is an indispensable piece of God’s new creation. Our efforts to build the kingdom of heaven without him are doomed to failure. We therefore have a direct stake in reconciliation to the enemy.
Finally, let us not be sentimental about love for our enemies or naïve about what it entails. My church’s ministry to and advocacy for refugees in the current climate of paranoia has met repeatedly with the objection, “but if we let these people in, some of them might be dangerous.” As anyone who follows me knows, I think the facts have demonstrated that the xenophobia generated by the present U.S. administration is factually vacuous. Nonetheless, even if the danger were real, so what? Jesus both preached and lived by example a love that embraces the enemy who nails you to the cross. He is not at all shy about telling his disciples they should gladly embrace the same. If your excuse for turning away refugees at your border is national security, well and good, but do not flatter yourself with the delusion that you are a disciple of Jesus. You are, at best, a distant admirer.
Here’s a poem about enemies by Wendell Berry
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. 2013 by Wendell Berry, pub. by Norwood House Press). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.
Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?
Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).
It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.
This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.
In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.
Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?
Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?
I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”
For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 12th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”
This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.
Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.
Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.
That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.
The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g., Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.
Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102. As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.
In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.
In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.
Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Do no swear at all…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:34-37.
Back in my college days I recall a rather heated argument over the propriety of Christians taking oaths. A young Mennonite woman, who was a friend of a friend of my roommate at Concordia Lutheran College in Portland Oregon maintained, on the strength of this and other New Testament texts, that Jesus’ admonition applied across the board to all oaths-whether administered in court, required by the armed services or as a condition for practicing law. My roommate, a staunch confessional Lutheran as ever there was, took the opposite view. He conceded, of course, that Jesus does not encourage us to speak oaths in the regular course of ordinary conversation. That only cheapens the practice in cases where it is required, such as those very instances in which my Mennonite acquaintance would have felt compelled to refrain. He pointed out that Jesus was asked to swear by the Most High and declare whether he was indeed the Son of God and responded (though whether his answer “so you say,” can be viewed as an averment is open to debate).
Since that time, I have sworn oaths to uphold the constitutions of the United States, the State of New Jersey and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the course of my legal practice, I have witnessed by affidavit the execution of numerous documents and signed thousands of Certifications under penalty of perjury. I can’t say I have lost much sleep over any of that. Though I have never given this issue much serious study, I suspect the oath is not really what is at stake here. The question is, who is invoking it and why? If the state or anyone else requires an oath from me, the intent is to make it clear to me that the matter on which I am being questioned is of grave importance. Moreover, I am being reminded that my failure to testify truthfully exposes me to legal penalties. I am on notice that I had better be careful of what I say and how I say it. But is my obligation to speak carefully, truthfully and accurately any less stringent in the absence of an oath? Shouldn’t my speech always be as though under oath? I think that is perhaps what Jesus is getting at here.
We seem to be vaguely aware that there are times when absolute truthfulness is demanded and comfortably convinced that, in most cases, a rough approximation will do. I frequently hear people say, “Look, I’ll be perfectly honest here,” and I would like to reply, “So what have you been for the last ten minutes?” The assumption seems to be that “less than honest” is perfectly acceptable most of the time. Why else would you need to announce in the middle of a conversation, “OK, listen up, I’m about to tell the truth for a change.” Jesus warns us that “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Matthew 12:36. How many of those haven’t I spoken in my six decades? More common by far than any deliberate falsehoods on my part are comments made based on untested assumptions, unreliable knowledge and the hearsay of people I hardly know. Most of what I pass on in this way is innocuous. Nobody’s reputation will suffer if it turns out an accident I remember hearing about somewhere took place in Cliffside Park rather than Ridgefield as I might have related it. Yet I cannot help feeling that inattention to accuracy in small matters can lead to toleration of inaccuracy in slightly more important matters, thereby paving the way to a larger indifference to the truth. The medieval monastics were sensitive to the dangers of careless and unregulated speech. They tended to extol silence as the default behavior in for a Christian community. The Rule of St. Benedict admonished young novices as follows:
“Let us do as the prophet says: ‘I have said: I will keep my ways so that I will not offend with my tongue. I have guarded my speech. I held my peace and humbled myself and was silent, even from speaking good things.” (Ps. 39:1-2). Here the prophet demonstrates that if we are not to speak of good things, for the sake of silence, it is even more vital that we not speak of evil lest we sin, for we shall be punished for that as sin. No matter how perfect the disciple, nor how good and pious his speech he rarely should be given permission to speak for: ‘In much speaking, you shall not escape sin’ (Prov. 10:19). The master should speak and teach; the disciple should quietly listen and learn. No matter what must be asked of a superior, it must be done with humility and reverent submission. We always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes; no disciple shall speak such things.” Meisel, Anthony C., del Mastro, M.L. (translators) The Rule of St. Benedict, (c. 1975 by Meisel & del Mastro, pub. by Doubleday & Co., Inc.) p. 56.
I can’t help thinking that the monks were onto something important here. Before we learn anything about what it means to be human or understand anything of the Creator’s character, the Bible tells us that we have been made in God’s image. The Bible is sparing when it comes to more than metaphorical imaging of God. About all we learn from the first chapter of Genesis is that this God speaks. Perhaps that is all it means to be made in God’s image. We are the animal that is endowed with speech-the very tool by which God fashions the universe. The monks understood, rightly I believe, that such a powerful instrument as the tongue should be used sparingly, with great care and seldom until one has acquired the art of listening and learning.
I wonder, when did silence become awkward? When did it become a social obligation to “make conversation”? When did we decide that “small talk” is worth talking about? When did we find it necessary to pipe insipid music into doctors’ offices and hotel lobbies to fill up every last silent crevice with noise? What would life look like in a world where everyone understood that each word is spoken in the presence and under the judgment of God?
Here’s a poem about the limits of speech and the power of silence.
The Beginning of Speech
The child I was came to me
a strange face
He said nothing We walked
each of us glancing at the other in silence, our steps
a strange river running in between
We were brought together by good manners
and these sheets now flying in the wind
then we split,
a forest written by earth
watered by the seasons’ change.
Child who once was, come forth—
What brings us together now,
and what do we have to say?
Source: Written by Adonis and published in Selected Poems, (c. 2010 by Adonis, published by Yale University Press and translated by Khaled Mattawa). Ali Ahmad Said Esber, who writes under the name of “Adonis,” is an Arab poet, translator, editor, and theorist. He was the oldest of six children born to a farming family in Syria. He got his earliest education from his father who taught him to read and encouraged him to memorize poems. With the help of a presidential scholarship, Esber enrolled in a French high school and then Damascus University, where he earned a BA in philosophy. During this time he began writing poetry under the name of Adonis, the Greek fertility god. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year in Syria for political activity deemed subversive. Following his release, Adonis moved to Beirut. Among his accomplishments is receipt of the first ever International Nâzim Hikmet Poetry Award, the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression’s Bjørnson Prize, the Highest Award of the International Poem Biennial in Brussels, and the Syria-Lebanon Best Poet Award. In 1983 he was elected into the Stéphané Mallarmé Academy. Adonis currently resides in Paris. You can read more about him and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.
The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.
The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.
It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.
Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.
Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.
I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”
The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.
Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.
Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.
Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.
The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.
Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.
A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.
Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.
Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.
That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.
“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.
Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.
Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.
There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.